The Complete Guide to Search Engine Marketing (SEM) – 2021

The goal of any website – regardless of what it’s about – is to have as many targeted visitors as possible. If the website is offering a product or a service, more visitors usually means more profit. If the website is purely informational or for entertainment, it is likely earning money through the ads on its pages. More website traffic can also mean more profit. So how does search engine marketing play a key role in supporting the goals of the website owner?

Search engine marketing, SEM, is a subset of digital marketing that is entirely devoted to helping websites rank high in search engine result pages (SERPs).

What does this mean?

Statistics show that 9 out of 10 users click on a result on the first page of Google. If your website is on the second or third page – it won’t draw nearly as much attention or any.

This is why SEM is essential in growing your business, promoting brand awareness, and generating profit.

SEM consists of two main parts:

  • Search Engine Optimization, aka SEO
  • Pay-Per-Click marketing, aka PPC

The purpose of SEO is to place your site high in search engine results organically, while PPC does this through paid search advertising. Both have their role in successful SEM campaigns, so it is best to familiarize yourself with both of these concepts.

To begin this ultimate guide to SEM, let’s start with the first question:

What is SEO?

SEO or search engine optimization can be a vague term for the uninitiated. SEO is a set of rules or guidelines you should follow to optimize the content on your site. This optimization is for the benefit of your visitors who will find the content they’re looking for more easily, but also for the benefit of search engines that will recognize and index your site more quickly. Your SEO strategy should be customized to your digital competitive environment, so using an out of the box solution will not yield the best results.

SEO consists of on-page SEO and off-page SEO.

What is On-Page SEO?

On-page SEO includes everything you can do to your website that will make it rank higher in an organic search. Content creation and optimization, restructuring your website, building links to other websites – all of these are key components of comprehensive SEO strategies.

The main features of on-page SEO are:

Keyword Research

Before you turn to actual content creation, you need to do keyword research. This is the process of finding relevant keywords that will lead searchers to your website. You need to find the exact words or phrases that people type into search engines and then include them in your content for easy finding and they are no always obvious especially if your brand name is not a well known.

To find these keywords, you can use tools like the Google Keyword Planner. Click here for more information on how to compile your starting keyword list.

Finding a long-tailed keyword or two can be particularly beneficial for small businesses and blogs. Although these keywords may not be searched as frequently and the more obvious choices, these are considered less competitive keywords and are useful for generating more targeted traffic.

When you’re trying to come up with keywords, always keep your target audience in mind. Avoid complicated and difficult terms if you can.

Content Creation

When you have a list of keywords that you’re satisfied with and that you’re sure is relevant to your business, you can proceed with creating content with these keywords in mind. Write blog posts or product and service descriptions that naturally incorporate these keywords and offer useful information at the same time.

Two things to avoid when creating SEO content are keyword stuffing and duplicate content.

Keyword stuffing is the practice of adding keywords into a text without any rhyme or reason, and Google algorithms could potentially penalize your site for this. Remember that the only way to get to the top of the search results and stay there for a long time is to have good content. Random keywords, stringed together, are not good content. Hidden keywords (written in the same colour as teh page background) are also worthy of severe Google penalties so stay away from these poor practices.

Duplicated content is content that has been “copy-pasted” from another site. Your website won’t receive any penalties for this, but the website will be removed from search results altogether. This could have catastrophic consequences on your business, so avoid it at all costs.

Link Building

Link building in SEO consists of adding internal and external links in your content. Internal links are links to other pages of your website, while external links lead to other websites.

For solid link building, you need to choose good anchor text – a phrase that shows the reader exactly what waits for them if they click on the link. You should also find a good balance between internal and external links, but don’t overdo it.

According to search engine algorithms, good sites link to good sites, and bad sites link to bad sites. The more relevant links you have – those that lead to trustworthy sites with high domain authority – and the more that those sites link back to yours, the higher your rank on Google will be.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is the part of SEO that refers to the structure of your website. This is where you need to set up a great user experience, reduce the loading time of your pages, add informative meta descriptions and relevant meta tags, and so on. This needs to be done on every page of your website to help Google do their job of sending relevant visitors to each page.

Users love sites that load fast and are easy to navigate. Moreover, before they even click on the link to the site in the search results, they like to know what the site is about. This is where the meta descriptions come in.

Did you know that 63% of Google searches in the US come from mobile phones? Mobile search is a big thing in this day and age, where everyone is on the go all the time, and this means you have to be optimizing your site for mobile users as well.

At the end of the day, you don’t need to be a webmaster to do technical optimization, but it would help to have some idea of how to streamline everything for maximum user satisfaction.

What is Off-Page SEO?

Off-page SEO is centered around what you do outside of your website to increase your search engine rankings. These actions can – and should – include:

  • Building backlinks
  • Guest blogging
  • Social media advertising
  • Influencer marketing

Building backlinks is when other sites link back to yours. The previously mentioned statement applies here, too: good sites link to good sites, and bad sites link to bad sites. The more that reliable, trustworthy sites link back to yours, the more search engine algorithms will be convinced that your site is just as reliable and trustworthy. If you have backlinks from bad sites, and have asked them to remove those links without success, you can use a Google Disavow process to tell Google you know these are bad links and you don’t want them.

Social media links and shares don’t fall in the backlinking category. However, both social media shares and influencer marketing contribute to raising brand awareness and bringing more visitors to your site.

Lastly, having someone write a guest blog post on your blog – especially if it’s someone with a good reputation in the field and with a solid social media presence – can also have a significant impact on your metrics.

Off-page SEO largely relies on how other people perceive your site and your pieces of content. If they are happy with the site and if your content offers information that is useful to them, they will share it more. There is no way to cheat around this, which is why (good) content is king, as they say in online marketing.

What is PPC?

The other side of the coin in SEM is PPC advertising. PPC stands for pay-per-click because these are the kinds of ads you pay money for each time a user clicks on them.

Unlike SEO, paid search engine marketing puts your website straight at the top of the search results if you invest enough of your budget in them. These PPC ads instantly make your website visible and are highly effective in drawing in your target audience. On Google, your website listing will have the label ‘ad’ next to it, and it will fall in one of the top three spots when someone searches for the relevant keywords.

There are pros and cons to paid search marketing. The main advantage is that the effects are immediate – you will see a spike in paid search traffic right away as visitors flock to your site. The main disadvantage is that paid search ads can be incredibly expensive and are only advisable for a short period of time to fill lead gaps while you wait for your SEO efforts to start working.

Let’s examine what it takes to build solid paid search campaigns in a short PPC guide.

PPC Keyword Research

Just like with SEO, you need to start with selecting keywords that are relevant to your business. Long-tail keywords are not recommended here; short, two- or three-word phrases that best describe what your business is offering are more advisable.

If you have different types of products or services, you can create logical groups of keywords for each of them in what is called account structuring. Each of these keyword groups can then be a separate ad. (For example, if you’re running a flower shop, you can advertise your prom day corsages separately from wedding hall flower decorations, if you deal with both.)

Another feature to consider when doing keyword research for PPC advertising is negative keywords. A negative keyword is not one that has a negative meaning, but one that is irrelevant to your business. If the aforementioned flower shop doesn’t have flower arrangement tutorials on its site, then flower arrangement tutorials would be a negative keyword for your campaign. When a user searches for flower arrangement tutorials on Google for example, your flower shop site won’t show up in their results.

Ad Auction

The next step in your PPC ad campaign would be to devise a bidding strategy.

It stands to reason that plenty of businesses have their eyes set on the same keywords. The most popular ad platforms, Google AdWords and Bing Ads, solved this problem by auctioning off keywords. Whoever makes the maximum bid for a targeted keyword usually gets to rank first for that keyword subject to quality score issues (see below).

The bids you are offering are usually the amount of money you’re willing to pay for a user’s click. For a successful bidding strategy, you need to consider your budget and how much those clicks are worth to you overall. If one click costs you $4 and a thousand searchers click on your ad in any given month, you will pay $4,000 a month for that. Calculate how many of those clicks need to convert to profit so that you’re not losing money on ads.

Quality Score

Search engines like Google and Bing don’t just consider the maximum bid when they’re deciding which ads to run. For these companies, building user trust and providing their users with the exact content they’re looking for is the main goal. Because of this, search engines rank ads according to their quality scores.

The quality score of an ad depends on ad relevance, landing page experience, and expected clickthrough rates.

Ad relevance is a measure of how relevant your selected keywords are to the ad copy (the content of your ad). If you have a cake shop, you can’t be running ads for exercise equipment just because you think these keywords draw more attention.

Landing page experience is all about the quality of your website’s landing pages and how easy it is for the user to find what they are looking for once they click on your ad. The pages need to be fully optimized, and the user shouldn’t have any trouble locating the answers or services they want.

Finally, the expected clickthrough rate is the rate at which your paid ads are clicked. If you divide the number of people who click on your ad by the number of people who see it in their results, you get your clickthrough rate.

Why does the quality score matter?

As you can see, the ad quality score’s main purpose is to judge the relevance of the ads and the content of your site in regards to the user’s search intent. The more relevant your content is to a specific search, the higher the quality score will be.

A high-quality score equals a higher return on investment. If the searchers find what they want on your site and they have a good experience, they are more likely to buy your product or pay for your service. This will not only cover the cost of the user’s click on an ad, but it will also turn a profit for your business.

Aside from that, search engines have ways of rewarding ads with high-quality scores. If your ads have a consistently high score, search engines will lower the cost of each click. However, if the ads have a low-quality score, search engines will raise the cost of each click until the ad is either changed or removed.

All of these are great incentives for you to try to improve the quality score of your ads as best you can.

How do you use SEM effectively?

Now that we have established the general outline of search engine marketing and what it consists of, it’s time to pose the ever-popular question: how to use all of this? When are you supposed to use SEO, and when should you use PPC? Can you use both? What happens if you use only one of them? Should you try to do this yourself or hire professionals?

Several factors will determine the extent of your search engine marketing strategy:

  • How much money you’re willing to spend
  • How fast you need the results
  • How confident you are in your SEM skills

If you have a limited budget and are interested in steady, long-term effects, then you can’t go wrong with investing in SEO. SEO should be the basis of your SEM strategy because it offers you the tools to optimize your content for maximum customer satisfaction. Regardless of how visitors get to your site, they won’t stay unless you have great content to engage them with.

That being said, SEO doesn’t have an immediate effect. To see whether or not your optimization works, you need to keep an eye on your site analytics (using tools like Google Analytics) and watch criteria such as your bounce rate, organic traffic, what type of content is most popular, and more.

On the other hand, if finances are not an issue, you can build on your SEO strategy and throw in a PPC ad campaign as well. PPC ads will bring in paid search traffic (as opposed to organic traffic from SEO) and show immediate results in your metrics. They are also great for testing your ad copy, keyword relevance, and target audience selection, though this testing can be quite costly.


There is no single correct way to go about search engine marketing. Every business is different, with different goals it wants to achieve and different strategies it would benefit from. The best you can do is learn as much about SEM as you can and how to make the most out of SEO and PPC advertising in your particular situation. 

Whether or not you want to enlist the help of an SEM professional, to set things up for you, depends on how much time and patience you have. A large marketing campaign requires a lot of planning and attention to detail, and it could mean a world of difference when you’re struggling to stand out in an overcrowded market.

If you’re unsure of where to start or would like to learn more about how to structure a successful SEM campaign for your business, please contact me. Together, we can work out exactly what you need to get to the top of the search results pages and watch your business grow from there.

Rob Dunford is a Marketing Consultant in the Great Toronto Area with over 25 years of experience in implementing marketing plans for small businesses.

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